I know in whom I believe
In 1915 Ellen G. White died at the age of 87 at her Elmshaven home in Deer Park, California. The last words reported to have been uttered by this servant of God were: “I know in whom I have believed.”
How well do we know the God in whom we believe? The question is important and very personal. I believe that we can know God, but knowing God does not mean that we have Him figured out. Knowing God at the deepest personal level means that we feel safe in His presence and that we seek His company. Let me share three things I have come to know about God from my experience.
God is my Creator
First, I know God as my Creator. Creation is a strange, unusual, and marvelous event. Even the Bible admits it. Only God can create. He made the whole world by His word. We cannot make things that way. Creation is a miracle. It is just there before our eyes on page one of the Bible, with no introduction. In the beginning God created, it blurts out. No wonder many people, even some Christians, struggle to accept creation as a way of making the world and everything in it. There are just too many questions.
To help answer some of these questions, our church established the Geoscience Research Institute. I have participated in two of its field study tours. They were enjoyable and informative. Yet, they dealt mostly with evidences of a great, frightening catastrophe, the Flood. But in between the lectures, I had time to contemplate God’s world—the sea beneath and the stars above. I began to feel safe again in the presence of my Creator and to seek His company more earnestly than before.
Consider yet another story of creation, this time from a child’s point of view. In Psalm 8:1-5 two people are talking—a father or mother and a child. Perhaps it was the psalmist, King David, and one of his children, Absalom or Solomon. They are walking on the roof of the palace one night. Looking up, the child asks: “Daddy, how many twinkling stars are there? And daddy, who put them there? Look, one is falling.” That is when the psalmist wrote: “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise” (NIV). And further, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” (NRSV) Notice the expression, “the work of your fingers.” To the psalmist God’s creative work is but finger work—simple, like child’s play.
Children know God instinctively because they have big curious eyes that are always looking up. They know what it means to feel safe in the presence of their parents, if they have good parents. Therefore, they teach us how to feel safe in God’s presence and how to seek His company.
But, you say, that is just too simplistic. We are not children any longer. How can we know our Creator without first having resolved every question about the world He created—questions about primate fossils found in Africa, about the ice ages in Scandinavia, about the geologic column, about dinosaurs, and so on.
I agree these are difficult questions, and quite frankly, I have not found satisfactory answers to all of them. But then I remember Psalm 8, and I think of a child standing at a street corner waiting to cross through heavy traffic. She reaches up to take the hand of her parent, and now she feels safe. That is how I relate to my Creator. There are questions and problems, of course. There are mysteries in the world. But when we take His hand, we feel safe.
When we know God like this, we confess without hesitation or reservation: I believe in Father God, the Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I know in whom I believe, I feel safe in the presence of my Creator, and I seek His company.
God’s will for my life
Second, I know God by accepting His will for my life.
God’s will for us is our welfare, and His will is revealed in His law. It sounds simple enough, and yet God’s will is a strange thing to many people. Some of us think of His will as strict, oppressive, legalistic, harsh, judgmental. For that reason even some Christians do not seriously seek to know and obey God’s will. Rather they attempt to avoid it so they can follow their own will.
Within the short history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I see two distinct phases in our teaching regarding God’s will and His law.
Phase one: Early on, without intending to, we managed to turn many of our people away from God’s will as revealed in His law. Ellen White spoke of that wrong emphasis in 1888, when she instructed us in the relationship between law and grace. At first we listened and changed, but then we forgot what we had learned.
We spoke about God’s law in the same breath as we spoke of God’s coming judgment, thereby frightening our listeners. Some of my students used to tell me: “If God is going to weigh my sins against His law in the judgment, I will not make it. I give up. I do not even want to hear of God’s law any more.” My assignment was to change their minds.
Phase two: Toward the end of the 20th century, as Adventists, we began to affirm once again God’s grace and righteousness by faith. We taught, properly, that grace precedes everything else in our relationship with God, and that once we accept His grace, we will know Him and His will for us. But that wonderful discovery really did not reestablish the law of God as a guide in our lives. In fact, it seems that the law of God is spoken of much less now than before, but for a different reason—not because we are afraid of it, but because we set it aside and ignore its value.
Thinking of all this I have come to two conclusions. First, in all the judgment passages, especially in the prophets where this judgment is presented, God does not judge His people for failure to obey His law, but for failure to remain loyal to His covenant. Micah 6:6-8 speaks of Israel’s failure and goes on to enumerate the many ways in which Israel might have been more obedient. “Should we offer more burnt offerings, oil, and sacrifices?” the people asked. “No,” comes the answer from the Lord. “I only ask three things (vs. 8): Act justly, love mercy, and be humble, that is to say, be loyal to me.” That is what God requires.
So I explained to my students that judgment is an important Bible teaching, but when our names come up in the heavenly court, the question God asks is not how good we have been, but how loyal we have been. That is what matters most to God. In fact, it is not our sins that get us into trouble with God on the judgment day, but it is contempt of court that puts us at risk with Him. As for our sin, God knows that we sin, but He has a remedy for sin—forgiveness (Micah 7:19). But what can God do with disloyalty on our part? What can He do when we turn our backs? That is what the judgment is all about: Did we turn our backs toward God in contempt of His court, or did we come boldly to His throne seeking His acceptance and forgiveness through Jesus Christ our friend and advocate? That is the meaning of loyalty in the judgment
My second conclusion is that the law of God is intended to show us how to act and live more responsibly. God’s law consists of 10 commandments on two tablets. Let us begin with the easy part, the second tablet, which teaches us to relate to others. Do not desire the property of others—be content with what you have. Do not lie about your neighbor—tell the truth. Do not steal what belongs to others. Respect your friend’s spouse—do not commit adultery. Do not commit murder—the life of another is not yours to take. “But how can we learn to live in harmony with these demanding prohibitions?” we ask. Here comes the answer in the one positive commandment on the second tablet, which points to the heart of all relationships: Honor your father and mother. That is where it all begins, at home with father, mother, and children. If things go right at home, then they will go right in the neighborhood, in the country, and between nations. God’s will really is no mystery at all, and it is not frightening either. It begins with a good and safe home.
But, we ask, Who gave us these principles, and why should we pay attention? The answer is found on the first tablet—the four commandments dealing with our relationship with God. Not just anyone is the author of these commandments. They come from God and they are His will. Who is this God? Not just anyone. We cannot see Him, and don’t even think of making a picture of God. Well, can I speak to Him? Yes, sort of, in prayer and meditation, but not by using His name in a common way. How then do we go about it, for we want to know this God and His will? That takes us to the corresponding positive commandment on the first tablet, the fourth. It contains a startling message: The law giver who sets such high ethical standards for us and asks so much of us, begins by giving us a gift—a day off, sacred time without work, a time to rest. That is the day on which we learn to know God in the safety of His presence. Once we catch the deep meaning of the fourth commandment, all the previous questions are resolved. We know Him by feeling safe in His presence and by seeking His company on His day (Isaiah 58:13, 14).
God loves me
Third, I know God because He loves me.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NRSV). As a young person I was greatly impressed with the thought that our Lord and Saviour would give His life to save one sinner. Added to this is Paul’s thought that it is perhaps understandable how someone might give his or her life for a friend, but Christ gave His life for us while we were still enemies (Romans 5:7, 8). We need to think carefully about the word love, especially since it expresses the third dimension of our knowledge of God.
First of all, God’s love is not motivated by emotions or passions. His love is a principle. That is what we need to know about Him, and once we do, we feel safe in His presence and seek His company—that is, we love God back the same way. Some Christians develop merely an emotional, passionate love relationship with God. Our young members, even children, sometimes, get caught up in believing that Christianity is merely an affair of the heart. “Give your heart to Jesus,” we instruct them when they are small. But will their love for God remain strong and steadfast as they grow up?
One of the saddest experiences I have had is to see young and not-so-young Christians replace their passionate love of God with a strong dislike of anything religious and Christian. The prophet Hosea also speaks of that experience when he, on God’s behalf, complains that Israel’s love is like the morning dew. It evaporates with the first rays of the morning sun (Hosea 6:4). So to clarify God’s kind of love, the prophet introduced a special word for love, hesed, which means love based on principle. This is often translated as “steadfast love,” or “covenant-keeping love,” or “lasting love.”
All of us have something to learn about God’s love. He loves us on principle but, unlike our love, His love never dulls. It remains warm and attentive always, even passionate, but principled. God is Someone who loves us always. He is Someone whose love is steady no matter the circumstances. He is Someone who loves so differently from the way even the most lovable among us love.
That is what Jesus explained to us in the parable of the lost son who returned to his father, his mother, and his brother (Luke 15). The Dutch painter, Rembrandt, portrayed the scene in a famous painting on display in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote a book about that painting of the rebellious son that finally returns home. The single point in the parable, the painting, and the book is that God the Father loved this young man against all odds and He loved him with a mother’s love and with a father’s love. This unusual point is implied in Jesus’ parable where both parents—father and mother—played a role in loving their son back home. One covered him with a robe and the other prepared him a home-cooked meal. This is expressed explicitly in Rembrandt’s painting and in Nouwen’s interpretation of it. Rembrandt painted the father’s two hands on his son’s shoulders, so that one imitates a man’s strong hand and the other looks like a women’s gentle hand. And he placed a woman faintly in the background of the canvas to indicate her shared presence. God loves all His children that way today. He loves you and me no matter our age, gender, ethnic, religious, or geographical background. We are all His kids!
In difficult moments it is not easy to keep our knowledge of God clearly in mind. But we must stay focused on it just the same. At moments of catastrophic destruction, as this world reaches its end, we must know for certain that He is our Creator and the Creator of the whole world. At moments when law and order are flaunted, the unjust are arrogant, and the enemies of God sin with a high hand, we must know God’s will and His ethical demands, for only they can bring order to our lives, our families, and our society. When love turns to hate or becomes dulled by absence and inattention, and those we have embraced become our enemies, we need to know God who loves all His children, always, without condition. That, I believe, is what Ellen White had in mind when she uttered her last words: “I know in whom I have believed.”
Niels-Erik Andreasen (Ph.D., Vanderbilt University) is president of Andrews University. This article is based on a devotional sermon given during a recent Annual Council of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. His address: Andrews University; Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104; U.S.A.